“Introduction to Poetry”

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

–Billy Collins


The language of poetry is like the “language” of music or art; “Emphasize…response in terms of feeling,” says Mary Oliver.  “We give far too much focus to understanding in our educational system.  Don’t ask …what the poem is about.  As…, ‘How does it make you feel?’”


I like to incorporate poetry readings into our yoga practice to offer a “dristi”—a focal point—and theme to help center and guide our efforts and intentions.  I believe poetry is a language for and of the “soul.”


But what does “soul” mean?  Like several other words pointing to intangible realities—God, spirit, love, heart, etc.—the word soul is frequently bandied about without delineating exactly what it may “mean”.  A dictionary may define soul as, “the immaterial aspect or essence of a human being, that which confers individuality and humanity.” But the Bhagavad Gita, in contrast, defines soul as the one unchanging, indestructible, indivisible presence within everything.  In the Old Testament, the soul is sometimes referred to as breath and therefore necessary to the life of the body.  Christian writers have portrayed the body and soul as separate and at times in conflict with each other.  Plato and Socrates define the soul as the immortal essence of being.  Jungian psychologist James Hillman calls the soul, “the poetic basis of mind…the imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream image, fantasy.”  Thomas Moore writes, “It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is.  Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway; the soul prefers to imagine.  We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth, as when we say certain music has soul or a remarkable person is soulful.”


Let us take the liberty of asking the word soul to include all of these varied and even opposing definitions.  Let it stand for all that lives in us beyond the socialized, survival-oriented self.  And let poetry be the language for and of the soul, and from below the surface of your life, let the truth of who you are call to you through the poems you love.


Spending time with a poem is a way of choosing what you’re going to do with your attention, like singing a song you love or blasting it on the stereo—it’s a choice to fill your thoughts with what you hold precious instead of electronic minuscule, self-criticisms, or anxieties about the past or future.


Filling your mind with poetry can offer a profound, paradoxical medicine.  It’s a physical event; the rhythm may quicken or slow your pulse, the flow of language expand your breathing.  It strengthens the mind and disarms it at once.  While the reality of the true self cannot fit into the borders of the mind, that same mind has one extraordinary capacity that makes it essential to the path of awakening.  The mind can use itself to shatter itself.  In the “AHA” that happens when the mind bursts open—at a breathtaking poetic metaphor or an insight or a chiming among the words—all levels of being human come into alignment.  You feel a sudden integration of body, mind, heart, and soul.  You are called into presence by the resonance of truth.  And when you are present, you are open to your feelings.  And when you feel, the rigid boundaries that divides you from others can melt.


Poetry is the language for and of the soul.

Come to attention—to detail, to nuance, to each other.  Poetry can strengthen our muscle for care, our capacity for intricate metaphoric thinking, our appreciation for ambiguity.